By BILL HARRIS -- Toronto Sun
Four key players, four big questions. New Raptors coach Kevin O'Neill can huff and puff and scream and cuss with the force of Hurricane Isabel, but it isn't going to mean a damned thing unless he gets some fortuitous physical and wilful mental co-operation from four key players.
Coincidentally, they just happen to be four players to whom the club has made long-term financial commitments: Vince Carter, Antonio Davis (status as a Raptor pending), Jerome Williams and Alvin Williams.
With training camp on the horizon, here's a look at the Raptors' four cornerstones and the issues that surround them heading into the franchise's ninth season:
Can Vince Carter become Vince Carter again?
This question was asked at the beginning of last season, and the season before that, too. And it will continue to be asked annually in Toronto until Carter either regains his superstar form or leaves town.
There were positive signs during Carter's stint with the U.S. Olympic team at the qualification tournament in Puerto Rico. However, Carter will not be surrounded by a Dream Team when he takes the floor with the Raptors, unless Mengke Bateer and Ken Johnson have really, really, improved.
O'Neill is expected to make Carter mentally tougher. But will the injury-prone Carter be physically tougher?
If A.D. remains a Raptor, what will his attitude be?
Davis would prefer to leave and the Raptors would like to accommodate him. But general manager Glen Grunwald has been searching for a suitable suitor for eight months. So far, even the teams that need Davis haven't found a way to stomach his contract (three years and $37 million US remaining for a player who'll turn 35 next month).
Reports surfaced this week that Grunwald has been talking to the Boston Celtics about swapping Davis for Tony Battie and Eric Williams, although it appears a deal featuring only those three players doesn't quite work financially (total salaries have to match, plus or minus 15%). In any event, the Raptors and Celtics have been trying to work something out since draft night last June, when Toronto politely declined Boston's offer of Antoine Walker for Davis and the Raptors' fourth overall pick.
Of the Raptors' core players Davis is by far the oldest and thus he must be wary of a major rebuilding project. Nonetheless, if no trade is worked out before camp, the intense O'Neill will try to get Davis to buy into what the coach is selling. A motivated Davis could help any team in the NBA. A mopey Davis will be no help to anyone.
Can JYD flourish in O'Neill's structured defensive system?
Say what you will about the self-proclaimed Junk Yard Dog, but Jerome Williams is a great ambassador for the Raptors in his travels around the Toronto area. Witnesses who saw him at an Argos home game this week were impressed by the fact he made absolutely everyone who approached him feel special.
On the court, Williams has developed into a high-energy gambler who sometimes forgets when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em. From the point of view of consistent effort, Williams arguably was the Raptors' most valuable player last season. But there's the possibility of some early friction if Williams is diving for crowd-pleasing steals and O'Neill simply wants everyone to guard their own man.
Can Alvin Williams develop into more of a leader?
Williams always gives it everything he has, and while that doesn't mean every decision he makes is a good one, no one can question the desire of the starting point guard.
When push came to shove -- literally, on at least one occasion -- in the locker room last season, it was Williams who had the guts and the fury to confront lethargic teammates and dish out some tough love. Williams is soft-spoken for public consumption but he is far less shy when surrounded by only his teammates and coaches. Carter and Davis are the club's incumbent co-captains, but Williams is the heart and soul.
It might be hard to pull it off in the hypersensitive and politicized atmosphere that permeates Raptorland, but here's something for O'Neill to ponder: Should Alvin Williams be the captain of this team, or at least one of the captains?
Four key players, four big questions. The quest for answers begins soon.